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William Bateman Leeds
by JACK MAJOR

William Bateman Leeds died in 1908. He is included in this 1921 project because his name remained in the news for many years after his death, and it was his money that created the heiress whose third marriage, to a Greek prince, led to the tiny news item that prompted me to take a detour in my family research. Little did I know the detour would lead to a maze from which I have yet to escape.

I have gone as far into the Leeds family history as my patience and interest will take me. What follows may be true, mostly true, or partly true, but undoubtedly incomplete. I had never intended to get bogged down in the stories triggered by that one tiny article, about widow Nancy Leeds (who became Princess Anastasia of Greece), which led me to his son, William B. Leeds Jr., who in 1921 married Xenia, a Russian princess whose mother had fled to England on the eve of World War I. That opened a whole can of confetti, including a link to the most famous Anastasia of them all, the royal Russian who was a cousin of Xenia and the subject of a mystery that, for some, will not go away.

So here's what I've read about William B. Leeds Sr. How he became a multi-millionaire known as "the tin plate king" involves several things I don't fully understand ... things such as tariffs, trust-building and watered-down stocks. My information, such as it is, came from various websites, several of which obviously copied items word-for-word from other sites and passed them off as their own. (There's a lot of litter along the information highway. The most annoying may be those websites that promise to be your source for all there is to know about almost every person who ever lived, but deliver only a squib they lifted from Wikipedia ... plus a lot of advertising.)

Mostly I got my information from a truly remarkable site, www.fultonhistory.com, which I mention with some reluctance because the more popular this site becomes, the slower it is to negotiate. What it offers are about a zillion pages from old New York State newspapers. It doesn't have every newspaper, nor every year from the newspapers that are available. But there's enough available to keep you busy for the rest of your life. The site seems to be used mostly by people on the same mission that led me to it in the first place – to discover and read about my ancestors. Some of mine made the news in 1921, which is how I accidentally stumbled across Princess Anastasia and Leeds.

Newspaper articles – which form the backbone of this project – aren't exactly reliable, particularly those from the glory days of the industry when each large city had several competing newspapers. Competition induces speed, and deadline-beating reporting often leads to mistakes that are compounded when an inaccurate story becomes the basis for a follow-up. This may be especially true in the case of stories about the Leeds family, especially when royalty entered the picture, because the combination of money and arrogance can created a strong barrier against intrusion by the press.

Because I did this online, I couldn't help but consider how much easier it is today to tap sources of information – yes, even bad information – than it was when these articles were written. Reporters almost invariable identified William B. Leeds as "the tin plate king" without ever explaining why he had the nickname or, for that matter, explaining what they meant by "tin plate." Many years later, Leeds' two children would be almost invariably be identified as "tin plate heirs" or as "sons of the tin plate king." By the 1920s people would be hard-pressed of identify "the tin plate king," and finding the answer might take some time. Ah, the difficulties of living B.G. (before Google). The answer to the "tin plate king" question, of course, is ...

WILLIAM B. LEEDS. His wasn't exactly a rags-to-riches story because he seems to have started out in Richmond, Indiana, as an ambitious, middle-class fellow who probably would have led a comfortable life even without the breaks that came his way. He doesn't seem to have been particularly likable – few narrowly focused opportunists are – but at least in the beginning he often stopped to smell the roses. And that's because his first business was operating a nursery which specialized in the sale of roses, shrubbery and greenhouse plants.

But that was a brief period in his life. At 22 his direction changed. The year was 1883, and whether it was his roses, his personality, his good head for business or the fact he had chosen the right woman to marry, Leeds made a favorable impression on Henry Miller, a relative of his fiance and a superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1883 Leeds found a new career when Miller secured him a position with the railroad's engineering corps for the territory west of Pittsburgh. It wasn't a cushy job, but it did offer advancement, though Miller must have been astounded by Leeds' position in the railroad business 19 years.

A month after starting his new job, Leeds insured his future – he married Jeanette Irene Gaar, also of Richmond. I have no idea whether this was true love or good planning on Leeds' part – certainly the love didn't last – but I'll assume that for the first seven years of their marriage they were an average young couple, hard workers with big asperations, perhaps benefitting only a bit from her family's wealth.

Then came 1890. I've yet to read anything that connects two events that, to me, are obviously linked. One, her father died, and, two, she inherited a substantial amount of money. How much money is unknown, but in 1890 you could do a lot with, say, $100,000, especially if you were friends with a banker who wasn't afraid to wheel and deal.

Anyway, Leeds convinced his wife to let him use all or a big chunk of her money to buy a nearby tin-plating plant. And then he turned to his best friend, who just happend to be a wheeling-dealing banker.

For what happened next, I turn to "A History of the United States Steel Industry," by Herbert Newton Casson (1859-1951), who had this to say in a section labeled "The Napoleons of Tin Plate."

 

There were four in the Moore or Rock Island group—all dashing knights of the dollar—whose adventures would read like the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor. They were D. G. Reid, W. B. Leeds, and the Moore brothers. [Chicago lawyers,William Henry Moore and James Hobart Moore.]

As for Reid and Leeds, they had been Damon and Pythias since childhood. Both were born in Richmond, Indiana, then a farming town of five or six thousand inhabitants. Dan Reid lived on a farm, Billy Leeds in the town. Dan began his business career by sweeping out a bank, working up, after a while, to be its president. Billy began as a rodman on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and climbed to the position of branch superintendent.

As soon as the thirty-dollar-a-ton duty was placed on tin plate, in 1891, the two young men swooped down upon the feeble little tin-making plants that had been fighting bankruptcy for twenty years, and swept them all together into a Tin Plate Trust before they had time to find out what was happening.

Tin plate was one of the youngest branches of the steel trade. There was a small plant at Leechburg as far back as 1872; but it was impossible to compete with Wales and make a fair profit. No tariff was levied on tin, because its importers were influential in politics, and because it was generally supposed that the making of it was a Welsh secret.

Reid and Leeds resolved to make the experiment on a large scale. The day after the McKinley tariff bill was signed, they ordered tinmaking machinery—a quarter of a million dollars' worth— from Wales. A body of Welshmen came with the machinery; but they failed

Then came the Presidential campaign of 1892. Tin plate was a national issue. Workmen paraded in Pittsburgh, wearing tin caps. Democrats claimed that campaign money was being used to start tin-plate works. The whole industry was thrown into the political caldron. But the two young Indianians never weakened. They adapted their machinery to American raw material; they set inventors to work; and in the end they remade the industry on American lines.

Within six years they had combined two hundred and seventy-eight mills into a fifty-million-dollar corporation. Reid and Leeds paid enormous prices for independent plants; but they took long views of the tin-plate business, and came out worth probably forty millions apiece [when they sold their business to what was about to become the U. S. Steel Company]. They and the Moores received from J. P. Morgan $140,000,000 in U. S. Steel stock when the big corporation was formed. They at once bought control of the Rock Island Railroad.

 

THE U.S. STEEL deal was made in 1901, but Leeds was already a fairly wealthy man by then. But as his financial struggle ended, so did his first marriage. In 1900 he divorced the woman whose money made his success possible. And she agreed – for $1,000,000, which at the time was considered the largest sum of money ever paid to obtain a divorce. In view of what would happen a year later, it might seem that even with $1,000,000, the woman was short-changed. However, I think it's safe to say Jeannette Irene Gaar Leeds did not regret her decision.

As for Leeds, he had already picked out a second wife, a 22-year-old stenograpner, Nonnie May Stewart Worthington, who had shed her first husband two years earlier. Mrs. Worthington, better known to friends as Nancy Stewart, grew up in Cleveland. Where she was working in 1900, I don't know. One story said Leeds noticed her in an office, but didn't say if she was one of his employees or a stenographer elsewhere.

In any event, it would have been impossible not to notice her – wherever she was. One story called her "the most beautiful girl in Cleveland," which may not seem all that impressive, but from two newspaper photos that must have been taken when she was in her early 20s, I'd say the word "stunning" didn't do her justice. (The photo on the left was taken years later, but the date is unknown.)

Leeds was smitten and would remain so for the rest of his life, which, tragically, would come in 1908. He and Mrs. Worthington were married at the home of her parents in Cleveland. Leeds reportedly gave his new bride gifts worth at least $500,000.

The couple settled for awhile in Chicago. A year later, thanks to J. P. Morgan and U.S. Steel, Leeds was richer by many millions of dollars. After he and his partners invested their profits in the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Company, Leeds became president of the company.

In 1902 Leeds purchased a 263-foot, $500,000 steam yacht, Noma. It was one of the fastest and most spectacular yachts of its day. I mention this only because it might help explain the interest – obsession is more like it – that would become so noticeable in the life of his son, William Jr., who someday would have a similar yacht, called Moana. (I haven't found a reason for either name, though, in the case of Moana, the world means "ocean" in most Polynesian languages, and Leeds Jr. spent a lot of time there.)

At the end of 1903 Leeds and his friend and partner D. G. Reid reportedly had a falling out. Leeds resigned as president of the railroad, but was made director of several other companies.

AFTER THAT he and his wife were little seen in the midwest because they preferred New York City, with summers in Newport, Rhode Island, and frequent trips to Paris.

In 1905, Leeds, only 44 years old at the time, suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. The next year he suffered a second stroke.

After three summers in Newport, leasing the cottage called "Rough Point" (many years later the home of Doris Duke), the Leeds decided to buy the property from Frederick W. Vanderbilt. (Her poor reception in Newport reportedly made Mrs. Leeds bitter and was the reason she spent so much time in Europe after she became a widow.)

Leeds suffered a third stroke in 1907, then died several months later, on June 23, 1908, at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. At the time his wealth was estimated at between $30,000,000 and $40,000,000 (In 2011 dollars, that would be more than $900,000,000.

HE WAS BURIED at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City in a mausoleum designed by John Russell Pope (who also designed the Jefferson Memorial). Pope was also engaged by Mr. Leeds at the time of his death, and was in the process of designing a new residence for the Leeds on Fifth Avenue.

His widow, who remarried and became known as Princess Anastasia of Greece, died in 1923 and also was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, but not in the mausoleum.

In 2002, Nancy Leeds Wynkoop, the daughter of William B. Leeds Jr. and Princess Xenia, had her grandfather’s body removed from the mausoleum and relocated next to his parents at Earlham Cemetery in Richmond, Indiana.

She had never met her grandfather, but said she made the decision out of concern that her grandfather was the only one entombed in the Leeds mausoleum, which has eight burial chambers.

Mrs. Wynkoop then gave the mausoleum to Woodlawn Cemetery, with the stipulation that $1.8 million from the sale of the tomb go to educational institutions she designated. The Leeds mausoleum went on the market in 2002 for an asking price of $5,000,000. The price was later dropped to $3.5 million, but it remains unsold.

William Bateman Leeds had a brother, Warner Miflin Leeds, who also became a millionaire in the tin-plate business. I find it odd that most stories about "the tin plate king" and his partners make no mention of Warner M. Leeds, but he definitely played a significant role. (The one story that did give him credit went so far as to put him on equal footing with his brother.)

WHEN WARREN M. Leeds died in 1925, the bulk of his estate went to his adopted daughter, Joy Leeds, then 12. He wife, Louise, had died in 1923 in a fall from a fifth-story window at their home in New York City where she and her husband had become known for their lavish parties. Joy Leeds thus became one of the richest 12-year-old girls in the country. Oddly, she seemed to drop out of sight after that.

Jeanette Gaar, the first Mrs. Leeds, died in 1946 and was buried in the Gaar family plot at Earlham Cemetery. She and Leeds had one child, Rudolph Gaar Leeds. While William B. Leeds Jr. eventually received the bulk of his father’s estate, his half-brother received $1,000,000 from his father in 1908 and chose not to contest the will.

Rudolph G. Leeds was educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and at Harvard. For him, a million dollars was more than enough, especially since some of his business interests also involved his mother, who was a millionaire, if just barely. But by the standards of Richmond, Indiana, in 1908, she was a very wealthy woman.

Rudolph G. Leeds used his money to buy a newspaper in Richmond. He also ran the Indianapolis Sun. But that was only part of the story. While operating out of Richmond, he invested in real estate in New York City. Among his properties was a 12-story downtown apartment building. He also had a 700-acre farm in Indiana which he used to breed draught horses. He was a well-known progressive and in 1912 was a member of the national committee of Theodore Roosevelt's National Progressive Party (aka the Bull Moose Party). Rudolph G. Leeds died in 1964 and is buried at Earlham Cemetery.

THERE IS another William B. Leeds who adds a bit of confusion when you're scrolling down the Google trail. This William B. Leeds, also a native of Richmond, Indiana, became a well-known New York City lawyer. He was an uncle of "the tin plate king."

To complicate matters, his son, William Stuart Leeds, was called Billy Leeds, same as his second cousin, William B. Leeds Jr. This Billy Leeds grew up in Lakewood, N.J. I don't know if his father also lived there and commuted to Manhattan or whether his parents were divorced ... or whatever. At this point there are so many William Leeds too juggle that I'm getting dizzy. The thing is, before he became a broker in New York City, William Stuart Leeds (Harvard, class of 1910), aka Billy Leeds, briefly lived in Gary, Indiana, where he worked at the American Sheet Steel and Tin Plate Company. Because of his name and his resume, he has been called "the tin plate heir," which just isn't so.

Finally, there's the matter of a cream of mussels soup known as Billi Bi, a specialty at Maxim's Restaurant in Paris. Reportedly it was created by chef Louis Barthe. There are three different stories floating around about how the soup got its unusual name; two of those stories involve William B. Leeds, senior and junior.

Barthe created the soup before he met any of the men supposedly responsible for the name, which could have been given to the dish anytime from 1905 to 1925, or later. You'd think if Barthe was as famous a chef as he's portrayed, there would be some website that let people know where he did his cooking – and when.

In any event, the story goes that a rich American ate lunch every day at Maxims and always started his meal with the cream of mussels soup. I imagine that one day a waiter walked into the kitchen and groaned: " 'e's ere again, zat reech Amaireecan, zat Beelee Bee! Avray day, ze same teeng!"

Chef Barthe ladled the soup into a dish, smiled and said, "One bowl of beelee bee, cawming up!"

And thereafter it was known as Billi Bi and was so noted on the menu.

BOTH LEEDS, father and son, spent time in Paris. If the soup were named for senior, it almost would have to be 1905. Junior probably spent most of his time in Paris in 1922 and '23.

Another story says it was named in the 1930s after a Maxim's customer named William "Billy" Brand. A variation says Brand was a customer at Ciro's in Deauville, not Maxim's.

There's also a story that says Barthe created the soup in 1925 and that it was named after William B. Leeds Sr., which is the most interesting version of all – because by that time Leeds Sr. had been dead for 17 years.

Which gets us to both the end ... and the beginning. William B. Leeds Sr. is dead. But his name and his legacy would soon become famous around the world.

 

Auburn Democrat / July 15, 1908
Contest Over Leeds Estate?
First Wife Said to Have Been Cut Off
in Millionaire’s Will

NEW YORK, July 15 – The will of William B. Leeds, who died in Paris several weeks ago, according to information received from abroad by friends of the former “Tin Plate King,” will be offered for probate next month. The will is in the possession of Lewis Case Ledyard, Mr. Leeds’s attorney, who is still in Europe and will be brought over by Mr. Ledyard early in August.

It will not surprise some of Mr. Leeds’s friends if the proceedings of the probate were followed by a spirited contest.

The information received by Mr. Leeds’s friends is to the effect that the will cuts off absolutely the first wife of the testator, Jeannette Irene Gaar Leeds, who is now living in Richmond, Indiana, the home town of both Mr. Leeds and his first wife.

The first Mrs. Leeds, the daughter of a Richmond banker, who assisted Mr. Leeds materially in his early business career, secured a divorce in 1900 from her husband after they had been marrid 17 years.

Though the will makes no provision for the first wife, Mr. Leeds’s son by that wife is bequeathed $1,000,000 either outright or in trust. This son, Rudolph Leeds, is 22 years old, is married and resides in Richmond, Indiana. An unsuccessful contest by his mother could not jeopardize his inheritance, while a successful contest would largely increase it.

The will is understood to bequeath an estate valued at between $8,000,000 and $10,000,000. The other only specific of importance, apart from that to Rudolph Leeds, is one to the second wife, who at the time of her marriage was Mrs. Nonnie May Stewart Worthington. To her Mr. Leeds leaves all his real property. The most valueable pieces are a house at 987 Fifth Avenue, this city, which Mr. Leeds purchased from Frederick W. Vanderbilt for $500,000. In Mr. Leeds’s lifetime, the second wife received some valuable presents of jewelry and it is thought large blocks of securities.

The residuary estate, worth probably $7,000,000, is left to a son, William B. Leeds Jr., by the second wife.

 

 
A day later Rudolph Leeds said neither he nor his mother would contest the will. The second Mrs. Leeds was a very rich widow. And that sound in the distance was a bunch of impoverished European noblemen running to the starting gate of the Tin Plate Princess Derby.
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